Chained CPI of Fools

The White House has confirmed that President Obama won’t include the “chained CPI” (a formula for reducing cost-of-living adjustments in Social Security benefits) in his 2015 budget. This is a huge relief for women over 75, people with disabilities, and military veterans, in other words some of the most vulnerable among us.

I’m glad that President Obama has taken this stand, but I’m more than a little exasperated that we’ve had to push him so hard to take what should have been an obvious step. It’s clear that it was a political calculus that prompted this step today — but we have to be vigilant and prepared for a renewed battle over the chained CPI in the near future.

As Roll Call reported: “However, while the proposal will not be in his budget blueprint, Deputy Press Secretary Josh Earnest said Thursday that the president’s proposal remains “on the table…”

Women know that the chained CPI threatens their economic security. It results in an immediate benefit cut for Social Security beneficiaries, and the damage continues to escalate over time.

Women already work a lifetime at unequal pay. They are also overrepresented in the lowest paying sectors of the economy where pensions, 401(k)s and health benefits are unheard of. And they take time out of the paid workforce to perform unpaid care work for children and other family members. As a result of all of this, women often reach retirement age with very little savings or investments to provide a monthly income.

As a report from the Institute for Women’s Policy Research shows, women rely heavily on Social Security — and they don’t have savings to fall back on when their Social Security benefit fails to keep up with increases in their monthly expenses.

Year after year, as older women’s actual expenses increase, the chained CPI would prevent their Social Security benefits from keeping up. According to the National Women’s Law Center, by the time a typical woman reaches the age of 80, the chained CPI would cause her to lose benefits equal to about a week’s worth of food every month, and by the time she is 90, the gap would grow to about 20 weeks of food per year.

Yet we know the typical woman’s monthly expenses would be increasing over this time period, not least because people over 65 spend an increasing share of their monthly costs on health care. Raise your hand if you’re willing to tell your grandmother to just ease up on the blood pressure medication for a couple months.

The geniuses who think this makes sense are not thinking about what makes sense for women. But women voters are most definitely thinking about what makes sense for them. And that brings us to why the chained CPI is not just bad policy, but also bad politics. Richard Eskow sums it up:

Of course, the Republicans are threatening to hammer the president if he drops the chained CPI. “If the president backtracks on this modest, sensible, bipartisan reform, it will eliminate any remaining shred of hope that he will deal seriously with America’s deficit and debt,” an anonymous GOP official told The Hill last week.

Remember, last year at this time Republicans in Congress responded to “this modest, sensible, bipartisan reform” by calling it “a shocking betrayal of seniors.” They did the same thing in 2010, when they responded to the President’s “bipartisan” ideas about Social Security and Medicare by running on a highly deceptive “seniors’ Bill of Rights.”

Republicans recaptured the House that year. This year it’s the Senate that’s up for grabs. Any Democrat who continues to unilaterally propose such “bipartisan” austerity measures eventually comes to resemble Charlie Brown, that eternally optimistic sad sack who believes that this time Lucy won’t pull the football away.

I don’t want the 2014 mid-term elections to be a repeat of 2010, when Tea Party extremists flooded into the U.S. Congress and state legislatures around the country. The result has been a vicious war on women’s basic rights and economic welfare. Some may complain that the White House decided to score some political points with the Democratic base, since the so-called “grand bargain” was off the table, by keeping the chained CPI out of the president’s 2015 budget. That grand bargain sounds like a devil’s bargain to me.

I congratulate the White House for taking the chained CPI out of this year’s budget calculus. But President Obama needs to take it off the table, break its chains, erase it from the blackboard — pick your metaphor — and stop it once and for all from threatening the economic future of women and the most vulnerable.

Originally Published on Terry O’Neill’s Huffington Post blog on 02/21/2014

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